The Legislative Assembly shall provide by law for the establishment of a uniform, and general system of Common schools. -- Constitution of Oregon, Article VIII, Section 3

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Gay teachers and role models

In this morning's Oregonian, metro columnist Anna Griffin writes about a disturbing incident here in Beaverton.  Apparently, a student teacher (one still studying for an education degree at Lewis and Clark), when asked by a student why he was not married, gave an honest answer--he is gay, and same sex marriage is not legal in Oregon.  A parent complained, and the Beaverton School District requested that the student teacher (one Seth Stambaugh) be re-assigned to another district.

As a Beaverton parent, I'm outraged.... that the school district would discriminate in this fashion.  (Often times, the words "as a parent" precede a steaming pile of bigoted nonsense, as though the well-intentioned desire to protect one's children from harm justifies any loathsome thought that might cross one's mind).  Were this a credentialed teacher, I suspect he would not be treated in this way (if for no other reason than the union might object)--but student teachers don't enjoy such protections.   Beaverton School District officials don't, as a rule, engage in witch-hunts against faculty who are sexual minorities, and frequently attempt to promote equality and diversity.  Yet in this case, they seem inclined to throw the student teacher in question under the bus.

I'm also a bit puzzled by Griffin's column, which takes Stambaugh to task for his words.  Griffin makes it clear that she has no issues with gay teachers coming out of the closet--and furthermore, suggests that they have a moral duty to do so (she invokes the case of Tyler Clementi, the New Jersey teen who recently committed suicide after a sexual encounter with another man was transmitted over the Internet).  Yet she faults Stambaugh for apparently going to far with his response to the student.  And BSD officials give the same reason for their dismissal of Stambaugh--he stepped out of line.


Were Stambaugh's response to be sexually explicit (whether gay, straight, or otherwise), that would certainly be crossing over the border of what is acceptable conduct.  But has far as I can tell, there was no sexual content to the remarks at all, other than an admission of his orientation.  By that standard, teachers who discuss their heterosexual partners ("my wife", "my boyfriend") ought to be sanctioned as well, and we obviously don't go there.  There are quite a few teachers at my children's school who are rather obviously "shacking up" with a partner--yet this doesn't generate any outrage. A teacher I know is, at this very moment, nine months pregnant (and due to deliver any day).  Nobody seems concerned that this might "expose" her elementary students to the topic of sexuality (though in years past, it might have).  Not only that, but the teacher in question was only  married over the past summer--yet there doesn't seem to be any outrage about this either.  Nor should there be--it's none of our damn business.  I certainly don't care; and only mention this to demonstrate the vast amount of hypocrisy which remains on this issue of public school teachers and their private lives.

Yet those who are uncomfortable with homosexuality view any discussion of the topic at all as tantamount to pornography, it seems--to many, there's little difference between a declaration of "I'm gay" and graphic descriptions of sex acts.  Others seem to think that such conversations are only appropriate with older students--that for a teacher to admit being gay in an elementary classroom--even if just an offhand reference to "my boyfriend" coming from a man--is somehow inappropriate.  Which, of course, puts gay teachers in a no-win situation; either they have to lie about their personal life, put up a big front of "its none of your business", or take the risk that any detail about their life outside of the classroom, no matter how insignificant, will cost them their job.  Which is why the closet is frequently so painful.

The other piece of Stambaugh's words--an apparent endorsement of same-sex marriage--might instead be what got him in trouble.  Again, I have a hard time agreeing with the district.  Teachers obviously ought not be using the classroom as a forum for political activism (though this rule is frequently only deployed against unpopular opinions), but what if a student asks a teacher his opinion on the issues of the day?  Here, Stambaugh volunteered a political opinion that was unsolicited--the student didn't explicitly ask about gay marriage--but the opinion was relevant to the topic.  When I was growing up, my teachers offered opinions on issues all the time (and a few of them "crossed the line" into advocacy), but I'm not aware of any of them being disciplined for this  But here's a few questions to think about:  What if the student asked the teacher why he doesn't eat meat, and the teacher responded that killing animals is immoral?  Or upon being asked about Afghanistan, questioned the patriotism of war protesters?  Or stated a refusal to cross a picket line somewhere?  Or expressed a belief that homosexuality is immoral?  Where do we draw the line between legitimate conversation, and illegitimate prostletyzing or indoctrination?

I agree with Griffin that teachers ought to serve as role models (regardless of sexuality), but I also think that first and foremost they ought to be educators.  Activities which interfere with the classroom should obviously be curtailed.  But activities which don't--such as a reasonable and honest response to a question posed by a student--should not be.  Assuming there aren't other facts which haven't been made public, The Beaverton School District should be ashamed of itself.  And Griffin, insofar as she is interested in gay rights issues, ought to rethink her position on this--the closet won't be fully opened so long as certain otherwise-legitimate political topics remain taboo when homosexuality is involved.

[edited to remove some identifying details]